Music of Adams and Haydn makes a lakefront summer highlight

Sat Aug 08, 2015 at 12:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Haydn and John Adams Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. File photo: Patrick Pyszka
Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra in music of Haydn and John Adams Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. File photo: Patrick Pyszka

If there were an award for clever classical programming in Chicago, Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Music Festival would win hands down.

Friday night’s program at the Pritzker Pavilion was a typically audacious, when-worlds-collide lineup, pairing an early 19th-century mass from an Austrian composer nearing the end of his career with a late 20th-century masterwork by a young American composer just finding his mature voice.

Haydn’s Mass in B-flat major led off the evening, in its festival premiere. Written in 1802, Haydn’s “Harmoniemesse” was his sixth and final mass and also his most expansive, grandly scored for vocal quartet, chorus and orchestra with double winds (the “harmonie” of the title). Uncharacteristically, the elderly composer struggled with completing the work and, while there are passing dark shadows, the mass is still imbued with the energy and spiritual optimism of his best works in the form.

Haydn is among Kalmar’s favored composers, as Grant Park’s principal conductor and artistic director mentioned in his introductory notes, and that affection was clear in the vital and energetic performance delivered by the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night. Kalmar brought out the dark cast of the opening “Kyrie” and the “Agnus Dei” as much as the buoyant rhythmic lift he brought to the choral fugues and cumulative weight in the concluding “Dona nobis pacem.”

The four soloists were consistent in their solos and well blended as a unit in the “Agnus Dei,” though elsewhere the balance was dominated by soprano Layla Claire and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch over mezzo Julie Boulianne and tenor John Tessier. Claire made the strongest impression of the four, with her bright, flexible instrument, though her words were fitfully indecipherable.

Prepared by Michael Black, chorus master of Lyric Opera, the Grant Park Chorus sang with polish and agility, handling Kalmar’s challenging tempos with aplomb. Apart from some ragged winds in the introduction, the only complaint was the inexplicable decision to allow late seating in the middle of the Gloria, which provided minutes of distracted bustle as audience members shuffled to their seats.

Thirty years after it was premiered, Harmonielehre remains one of John Adams’ finest inspirations, along with his deeply moving tribute to the victims of 9-11, On the Transmigration of Souls.

Unlike much of his recent output, which has offered either slick and jokey superficiality (Absolute Jest) or leaden, preachy political correctness (The Gospel According to the Other Mary), Harmonielehre remains a masterpiece and after three decades still stands as Adams’ most substantial and convincing work for orchestra.

Spanning three movements and 40 minutes, and scored for huge forces, Harmonielhere is a symphony in all but name. The extramusical inspirations are wide and varied, from the title, taken from an Arnold Schoenberg text, to whimsical dreams of flying tankers and his then-infant daughter.

Harmonielehre is ambitious in scale yet ideally proportioned, with a rich vein of thematic material. Adams made a great leap forward in this work, fusing his early minimalist style with soaring lyrical richness and a driving rock edge that cohere masterfully. From the hammering assault of E minor chords that opens the work, we’re not in Kansas (or in Shaker Loops) anymore.

Carlos Kalmar is clearly in synch with Adams’ style and–even with the distraction of repeated passes by low-flying helicopters–led the Grant Park Orchestra in an edgy, powerful performance that did Adams’ music proud in this belated festival premiere. The pulsing rhythms that frame the first movement went with insistent momentum, and  the searching contrasting theme was quite beautifully played by the Grant Park strings.

The second movement, “The Anfortas Wound,” reflects an artistic crisis for Adams, and here Kalmar charted the  introspective music with great skill and finely layered dynamics. There is an undeniable sense of renewed energy and resurgence in the finale, which had ample propulsive energy, culminating in its grandly affirmative coda.

The playing of the orchestra had more than a few rugged moments, most prominently a mangled trumpet solo in the middle movement. Even so, this Harmonielehre debut offered a highlight of the summer season, and one should grab the rare opportunity to hear Adams’ terrific symphony and the Haydn mass Saturday night.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Music of Adams and Haydn makes a lakefront summer highlight”

  1. Posted Aug 08, 2015 at 3:32 pm by David Grusenmeyer

    When at intermission I asked one of the ushers why so many latecomers were allowed into their seats in the middle of the Gloria, the usher said that the movers were not late but were avoiding what turned out to be a very brief shower.

  2. Posted Aug 09, 2015 at 10:52 am by Odradek

    I agree with the review, but was fortunate to catch Saturday’s performance, where there was no trumpet mangle and no brief shower.

    “Harmonielehre” is also being done by the CSO this upcoming, under Edo de Waart, who premiered the piece and made the first recording of it.

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